Jake Waters had always been the next guy in line. It was that way at tiny St. Albert High School in Council Bluffs, Iowa, and it remained that way at Iowa Western Community College.
The veteran quarterback would graduate and Waters would step into the job.
Now, he’s getting his first taste of real competition.
The junior college transfer is in a race with sophomore Daniel Sams for the starting nod just two weeks away from Kansas State’s season opener. Both are trying to replace Collin Klein, the Heisman Trophy finalist who led the Wildcats to a Big 12 title last year.
It’s a competition that could go down to the wire.
“It hasn’t been handed to me,” Waters explained, “but I was always just the next guy in line in high school, the next guy in line in junior college. But here you have to compete every rep, every meeting. Every second, you’re competing, and the coaches are watching to see how you react to a bad throw, a bad check, a bad play, so definitely you have to stay on your toes.”
It’s all new to Waters, and in some ways, new to Kansas State. There hasn’t been a legit quarterback competition in Manhattan for quite some time.
Klein took over the job as a junior and turned heads while leading the perennially overlooked Wildcats to the Cotton Bowl. He returned as a senior last season and accounted for more than 3,500 yards, leading the Wildcats to their second conference championship and a Fiesta Bowl berth.
There were plenty of blowouts along the way, and that gave Sams a chance to get into some games. He threw only eight passes all season, but he electrified fans with his swiveling hips and breakaway speed, running for 235 yards and three touchdowns in parts of eight games.
At one point, Sams said, he contemplated switching positions so that he could get on the field more — perhaps to wide receiver or running back. But he recalled Kansas State coach Bill Snyder telling him, “I recruited you as a quarterback and that’s what you’re going to play,” and that was pretty much the end of that discussion. Sams was the No. 1 guy heading into fall camp.
“I took my on-field habits more serious as far as watching film, working on mechanics,” he said. “When I was with Collin, I wasn’t doing that. I was just trying to learn the offense. I wasn’t working on perfecting my craft. Now I’m getting my timing down with receivers.”
In other words, Sams has gone from getting the basics down to fine-tuning the details.
His throwing motion remains a work in progress, but in Snyder’s offense, that’s not always important. Klein’s motion was mocked by football purists, but it was good enough to back off defensive backs and allow him to squeeze through the line of scrimmage for big runs.
Sams isn’t the only quarterback in the race with some speed, though. Waters is the more accomplished passer — he set a junior college record by completing 73.3 percent of his throws last season, and had 3,501 yards and 39 touchdowns with just three interceptions. But he also showed some mobility, scrambling just enough to keep opposing defenses off balance.
“Both quarterbacks are similar,” Kansas State running back John Hubert said. “They both throw the ball well. They both run the ball well. It’s just getting the plays down, getting more mature, more confident in leading the team.”
Waters tried to make up ground on Sams in that respect by arriving in January, which allowed him to practice and participate in the spring game and get a head start on summer workouts.
“Both of them are settling in and they’re getting a lot of repetitions right now,” said co-offensive coordinator Del Miller, who doubles as the quarterbacks coach. “And I like the direction they’re going. They’re moving forward. They’re understanding direction better.”
Snyder refused to say when he preferred to have a starter settled, and it may not even happen before the Wildcats open their season on Aug. 30 against North Dakota State.
They follow with games against Louisiana and UMass during the non-conference portion of their schedule, giving them a relatively soft start before visiting Texas on Sept. 21.
If the quarterback race continues into September, well, Waters insisted that he’ll be ready for it — even if he’s never been in a competition for a starting job before.
“If you don’t perform well, you’re not going to play,” he said. “We both came into the spring like we were in game-week every week, so that’s prepared us for this.”